MHR Chalk Talk -- Week 7 - Denver at New England (MNF)

 

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IN DENVER BRONCO PRE-GAME ANALYSIS

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This game is a great game for Denver fans eager to judge the team.  It's Monday Night Football, and it's the Patriots (even without Brady).

While the Patriots are missing Brady and are not the dominant team of a year ago, they are still well coached and feature many top notch players.  Denver will also be traveling to the Pats back yard to play the game. 

The history is amazing.  As MHR's Chief Editor "TheSportsGuru" reports:

Since 2001, when the Patriots won their first of three Super Bowls in a four-year period, the Broncos are the only team in the NFL with a winning record against New England in regular season and postseason play combined. Denver is 5-1 (.833) against the Patriots since 2001 while the rest of the NFL is a combined 26-102 (.203) versus the club during that time.

In other words, while the Patriots have dominated the NFL for several years, the Broncos seem to have their number.  In this special edition of MHR Chalk Talk, we'll match the schemes used by each team on both sides of the ball to get a picture of what to expect, and what to watch for on Monday night.

Read on....

 

The Patriots Defense

While many casual fans of the game will note the powerhouse offense that has defined the Patriots, many hard core football fans will point to the defense as the key in NE.

The Patriots primarily run a 3-4 formation, and are known in football circles for being to adapt to any team that they play.  It's the adaptation of the defense to the many types of offensive systems in the NFL that makes this former defensive coordinator drool.  Like him or not (and I don't) on a personal level, Belichick is superhuman in his ability to make his 3-4 like a robotic transformer in its ability to morph from one game plan to another, all in the framework of the Fairbanks-Bullough system that he runs.

From MHR University comes this breakdown of the Fairbanks-Bullough:

The "Bullough" variation of the "Fairbanks 3-4" is the system being used (most notably) to great effect by NE.  No team has returned to the original Fairbanks, and the classic 3-4 system is now just called "Fairbanks-Bullough".  It is strictly a 3-4 system, as is the "Phillips" 3-4.

This system is what most people think of when they think of the 3-4.  It is based on 2-gap play  on the D-line.

The system was used in colleges for years before, but came to the pros in 1974 and was built to withstand professional offenses by Coach Fairbanks.  He coached Oklahoma (where the system was created in the 40s), and the Patriots.

Coach Bullough (who was a head coach for BUF but the defensive coordinator for NE in the 70s) refined the system further.  It no longer looks like the collegiate 3-4 of the 40s and 50s (in which the 3-4 was close to the line, every player was a brute, and the team played mostly zone).

The NT is a 2 gap player who lines up at 0 or 1 technique.  The DEs will be aligned based on situation, play, and match-up.  All three players are typically bigger than in the other two systems.  They often plug up the OL to allow the LBs to make the big plays, and so they get little credit in the stats themselves.

One common tactic is to shift over or under (depending on the direction of the shift).  Most 4-3s do this on the DL on a few plays.  But in the 3-4 as run under the Bullough, the team will often "scissor", which means they shift the DLs one way, and the LBs another.

Here's a scissor:

Scissor_medium 

This gives the OL little time to react to a new formation.  Is the JACK LB going to "cheat forward" and play like a one gap DE, or is he going to zone?  Note how the NT can now draw double coverage from the Right Guard and the Right Tackle, and the Left End (The right most "X") is still there to cause problems for the Right Tackle.  The SAM LB is now in an ideal position to wrap around the line and take out the QB.

The confusion doesn't stop here.  The LBs can zone, man, or blitz.  That's three things that each of four LBs can do.  Do the math to try to predict the number of variations.  Then, before patting yourself on the back, consider that each of those actions have further variations.  Man - which man?  Zone - zone where?  Blitz - through which lane?

Despite the fact that the Bullough can be confusing, the system relies on a lot of "bend; don't break" thinking.  The system will often give up short yards in the run, and blitzes are not common.  The idea is that the longer the offense is on the clock, the longer it takes them to score, and the more plays the offense risks an interception, fumble, or a fourth down.

How are 3-4's countered in general?  From the same article:

There are many traits shared by the systems that make them vulnerable.  Of course a coach makes adjustments based on personnel and film, but here are the common, over arching approaches offenses take.

  1. Two TE sets - the 3-4 killer.  Take out the FB and add a second TE.  The common outside blitzes by the Phillips and the Lebeau are rendered less effective.  This is the most common approach, and great blockers like DEN TE Graham are perfect for this.
  2. Run the ball, run it up the middle, and run it with power.
  3. Skip the screens and use both the FB and HB as pass blockers.  Vary the TE frequently between pass blocking and receiving (throw some confusion back at the 3-4).  Keep passes up the sideline, where you don't burn the clock so much, and where the zones are less frequent.

But let's take a deeper look at the NE version, and examine how Denver should approach the match-up.

Denver runs in a one cut variation of the Zone Block system.  Against one gap schemes, this is a perfect weapon.  One gappers hit the gaps in a slant, and find themselves being blocked obliquely by small but agile offensive linemen.  But the Bullough is a two gap program, and is supposed to trouble the Zone Block.  The two gap linemen don't shoot the gaps, they hold the line and play the gap when th runner commits.

Denver has more than made up the difference by using several schemes against the Pats.  One is to pull offensive linemen (a "trap") to create more confusion.  Another is to use  lot of misdirection.  Denver loves to run the bootleg play, and individual players on a defense are likely to bite on either the one cut run, or the roll out to pass.  But they can't do both.  Coach Shanahan also does a masterful job of running pass plays that spread the defense wide, and allow the one cut to eat the middle of the field.  All in all, Denver uses very few run blocking schemes.  This is why they have success in NE though, because the rarity of the variation makes the few odd tweaks much more effective when they finally do show up.

Belichick and Shanahan are masters of the game.  But Shanahan's edge has been running plays during a game designed to create bad choices for individual players on the opposing team, as opposed to directly challenging the coach on the other side.  So far, it has worked well.

But this year there is a new wrinkle, and this is what football afficianados should watch carefuly for.

Denver seems to have gotten away from what has helped them beat NE in the past.  Denver is leaning more towards a "spread" system this year instead of the "West Coast Offense".  Gone are the passes to the edges that set up the run.  Gone is the emphasis on running.

Denver is relying on Jay Cutler to use his cannon arm and his laser accuracy.  Jay is a great QB, and will be in a pro bowl sooner than later.  He also has a stable of amazing WRs (League leading Marshall, rookie phenom Royal, and slot expert Stokley) as well as a deep and elite TE corps (former Patriot Graham, Scheffler, and Jackson).  Denver's OL has allowed only one real sack (plus a statistical faux sack) this year.

Not one player on the Patriots front seven fails to impress me.  The DL and the LBs are the best of the best.  But the Pats don't blitz much, and I don't think the Denver OL would have many problems if they did.  Instead, watch for the LBs to play zones to force Cutler to go underneath in his passes.  The DL will likely be more prominant in trying to slow the Denver run game.

Expect Denver to use the Zone Block less frequently this game.  Everytime you see a good gain up the middle, some broadcaster will point out the great Zone Block of Denver, but it isn't always the case.  Denver primarily uses the Zone Block, but not exclusively.  Against the Pats, Denver should use a lot of power runs up the middle with standard run blocking, and mix in some Zone Blocking to keep the DL honest.  (Power runs up the gut are an approach to beating 3-4s).

Also, expect Denver to use the two TE sets that teams like to use to prevent outside blitzes by wide aligned OLBs.  If a FB is in, he should be pass blocking instead of going for screens (which the NE 3-4 would eat for dinner).

While the DBs of NE are not as talented as most years, Belichick can call zones for the LBs and SAFs, while mixing up the use of the CBs.  Cutler is smart enough to read defenses, but can be too aggressive if not coached properly.  (Cutler did well against the Bucs Tampa-2 because he was coached to be patient.  If he isn't told to be patient against the Pats, and they zone a lot, Cutler may have some INTs).

There can also be concerns that the NE defense will have a better shot at scheming against the spread than the many misdirection schemes Denver uses in a WCO.  While Cutler still runs the bootleg (and even a rare option play here and there), he is playing in the pocket more this year than any QB in recent Bronco history.  This may be just what NE wants.  Add in Denver's seeing lack of commitment to the run, and you get a more predictable Denver Offense.

The Patriots Offense

The first thing that comes to mind is that Brady isn't playing.  Don't focus on that.  It's not who isn't playing that matters as much as who is.

NE features elite WRs, a TE famous for running down a Champ Bailey interception (yes, Ben Watson is a freak of nature), and a terrific front five.

The Patriots run an offense called Erhardt - Perkins.  It is the same system that the Steelers ran under Cowher and tthat he Panthers currently run, but looks nothing like the other two.

Many folks think the EP is a smash mouth system, and that is how it is mostly used by other teams.  But not so in NE.  The tenents of the EP are:

  1. There is a lot of different looks in terms of formations.  The nomenclature (descriptive terms) used in the EP always include formation and personnel informtion, as well as the play itself.
  2. Runs set up the pass (unlike the West Coast Offense), regardless of how often the ball is run.  In fact, NE threw the ball more last year than ever before.  Still, the runs weren't designed to be gainers, but to shift defenses from ideal assignments.
  3. More play action than other systems (with the exception of the Colts "Timing system").

NE has the WR and TE talent to catch the ball, but can a back-up QB avoid errant throws around Bailey or Bly?  (Some fun trivia: Not one pass in Bailey's direction the last two games).  Denver's lack of a pass rush (except the TB game) has allowed teams to tear up Denver on passes.  But NE offensive tackles Kaczur and Light both didn't practice on Wednesday.  Is this the break Denver needs?

Denver has also been questionable stopping the running games of opponents too.  But if there is a silver lining, it is that the Denver defense is young, fast, and showing improvement.  The improvement is slow and uneven, but they are there.

Courtesy of ESPN comes the following tid bits from a press conference during which Belichick discusses the Broncos:

Opening statement:

 

Bill Belichick: After watching Denver over the last couple days, this is a real impressive football team. They have some familiar faces and a lot of new ones; some rookies are making a big impact for them. As usual, I think they are one of the best-coached teams in the league. I think Mike [Shanahan] does a tremendous job with his players, especially offensively. They are a very fast starting team. They score early and they score often. They are really throwing the ball well. They have an outstanding group of receivers, tight ends, [running] backs and their offensive line is playing well.

Defensively, they are fast. They have a very veteran secondary other than Jack Williams who comes in on sub for them. But their four starters are very experienced, fast linebackers and are a disruptive front. [They] are very good in the kicking game. They are right in the top of the league in kickoff coverage, punt coverage and returns. They have done a good job on the long field goals. Real solid football team, really good in every area of the game, well coached, fast, tough and we have a lot to get ready for this week. They are pretty good. They would be a lot more fun to watch if we didn't have to play them.

Q: Have they become more of a passing team?

BB: They have always had a good balance offensively and they still continue to do that. For example, against San Diego they were spread quite a bit. [Jay] Cutler is throwing the ball well. Their receivers are outstanding and are very good with the ball in their hands, especially [Eddie] Royal and [Brandon] Marshall. Those guys break a lot of tackles [and] make people miss in the secondary. [Tony] Scheffler too -- he is a receiver playing tight end. They have very good skill players and Cutler is throwing the ball well; he is very mobile in the pocket as well. It is fair to say they are throwing more than they did when we saw them two years ago.

Q: Have you noticed any difference in Jay Cutler this year compared to last?

BB: No. He looks pretty good to me. We didn't play him last year but he looks very good, very athletic, has a strong arm [and] can make all the throws. He can throw the ball as far as you want to throw it, as far as it can be thrown. He can get it down there but he has a good touch. He uses all of his receivers and tight ends. He will get the ball to the back some but he has hit the receivers and tight ends so much that the backs have become a lesser option for him. But he is very good. They do everything well, they really do.

Q: Rookie running back Ryan Torain could start practicing this week. Would that be difficult to prepare for?

BB: It is something that we will have to do the best we can to prepare for him. It was a little bit like the Kansas City game when [Branden] Albert didn't play all the way through preseason and then he lined up at left tackle. You go on what you've got. If he is in there than we will do the best we can to get ready for him. Some guys we know more about than others but that is a little bit of the case in the first half of the season. You are going to run into some guys you just haven't seen as much of. You have less to go on but sometimes that is true of your own guys too.

Q: Is there any difference in Denver's running game? Are they rotating guys through a little more than they were?

BB: Scheme-wise, no. The hard part about their running game isn't the plays; they run basically the same plays. They create a lot of different formations and they build them differently. You don't really see it until right when the ball is snapped. That's the hard part. It is the run force and getting everyone in the right position. Not that they do a lot of different blocking schemes; they don't have very many blocking schemes but they attack the edge of the defense probably as well as any team in football. That is really the heart of the problem, getting your run force and getting your perimeter guys in proper leverage to play the plays.

Q: How much do they use the 3-4 defense?

BB: They mix it in there. I would say they are primarily a 4-3 team, but they will mix it in there. They give you some different looks out of their 4-3 and 3-4 group and when they go into their sub packages they have some different looks on that too. They have a good mixture defensively. The one thing about it, no matter who is out there, it is a pretty fast group. They have fast players - guys that can run. It is hard to circle them up and get around all of them. You have to get into the defense and get some space there. It is hard to outrun [Champ] Bailey, D.J. Williams, [Nate] Webster, [Dewayne] Robertson and all those guys. They are a very good pursing team.

In some areas, Belichick is being diplomatic.  Not many Denver fans would brag about a disruptive defensive front.  I also don't think Torain plays this week (though the assumption was by the questioner, not Coach Belichick).

Keys To The Game

Denver

  1. Limit turnovers.
  2. Mount an effective pass rush.  (Cassel has been sacked more than any other AFC QB)
  3. The defense must get stops on third downs.

NE

  1. Gain at least 100 yards on the ground (starting RB Maroney may be out this game).  NE hasn't had a 100 yard rusher yet this year.
  2. NE must score at least 21 points.  They have scored 20 or more points only once this year.  21 Points probably wouldn't cut it.
  3. Don't give up the big play.  Denver is more prone to turn over the ball if they have a long drive.

BOTH TEAMS

  • Both teams have several key players who are listed as questionable for Monday night's game.  The trainers are going to be a key to this game.  The trainers that gets more key players on the field (without rushing them back too early) will give their team a major boost.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Both teams are coming off of disappointing losses.  Both teams know they have the potential to play better.  Both teams are on a national stage.  And both teams have a shot of winning their divisions, or being barely edged out.  In short, both teams need this game in a bad way.

Neither team takes the other lightly.  Both teams should be at their best.  If either team comes out playing less than 100% for four quarters, the other team won't.

This is an evenly matched game of two teams in the second tier of the NFL's best.  Denver fans should keep this thought in mind for the game:

5-2 is a heck of a lot better than 4-3.  SD is nipping at Denver's heels, and not many Denver fans should relish having to play starters in the last game of the season against SD.  A win on the road against NE would make a big statement, and could showcase further improvement.  Denver then gets a bye to rest up, and faces two teams they should be able to beat (MIA and CLE).  A loss, and the bye week takes on a more ominous feeling.

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